Two years after typhoon Haiyan, leaders have a duty to act on climate change

In the small fishing town of Salcedo in the Philippines’ Eastern Samar province, fishermen and women have been struggling to feed themselves since Haiyan first made landfall 20km away on 8 November 2013.

Already among the poorest people in the country, their livelihoods were shattered when eight-metre high waves wrecked the coral reef near their area.

“Before Haiyan, we were able to catch enough fish for us to eat and even sell so we could buy rice or oil. Now, we could barely catch enough for our own needs,” says 59-year-old Carlos Rosaldo, who lost his house, his bangka (outrigger boat) and fishing nets.

“Yes, we lost our house, we lost everything. But me and my parents are lucky because we are all alive,” says Sharon, Carlos’ 21-year-old daughter, who has been leading a village youth group that gets young people involved in disaster preparedness and climate change adaptation.

“They say Haiyan came because of the warmer climate,” says Sharon, gesturing at the hot, humid surroundings. “I believe this because we’ve noticed the changes. We expect April and May to be hot and dry, but in the last few years it’s always been raining. Between June and August, we expect rains, but instead we have droughts. During November and December, we expect it to be getting colder, but now it still feels like summer,” she says.

Carlos agrees. “It’s unpredictable. We’ve never experienced anything like this.”

In spite of the devastation, Sharon says some good things have come out of the disaster.

“Because of Haiyan, many people, including my parents, are now taking advice from the government and NGOs more seriously. Not just evacuation orders, but also advice about fishing practices and what to do now that we’re experiencing El Niño,” she says.

The Rosaldos’ neighbour, Cherry Ann Abud, 31, has also noticed positive changes.

“People now join town meetings about preparedness and adaptation. This is new, especially for women like me,” says Abud, who is married to a fisherman and has an 18-month-old son.

“Thanks to NGOs, I was encouraged to join an organisation with other women. We educate ourselves about climate change and how we can better adapt to it. When we hear that there’s a storm or drought coming, we find out how much food we should store, how soon we should evacuate, or what alternative livelihood we could take on,” says Abud, who was recently elected chairperson of the Barangay [Village] Water and Sanitation Association.

The ability of communities – especially those in which livelihoods depend on fishing – to adapt their practices to a changing climate is key to withstanding extreme weather events like El Niño, which has been predicted to be the worst in the world’s history. However, with limited resources, they cannot do this by themselves.

Last month, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its fifth assessment report.

Dr Luèka Kajfež-Bogataj, one of the report’s authors, said: “Continued high emissions will increase risks. Key regional issues range from increased water scarcity, to flooding with the potential for widespread damages, to increases in wildfires and associated impacts. A wide diversity of adaptation options can help reduce these risks while building vibrant communities and robust economies.”

The ball is now in the court of the world leaders due to meet at the 21st climate conference in Paris in a few weeks to hammer out a binding agreement to contain global warming.

In a stark illustration of just how critical it is to act without delay, Typhoon Koppu made landfall over Aurora province in the northern Philippines on 18 October, unleashing winds of up to 210kph. Over three days, it brought torrential rains that caused extensive flooding and triggered deadly landslides, leaving more than 50 people dead and 83 injured . About 950,000 people were evacuated and there was an estimated $184m (£122m) of damage to agriculture.

Koppu’s arrival marks the fourth time in the past four years that the Philippines has been hit by a major typhoon while global climate negotiations were under way.

For climate justice advocates, this coincidence is not just about bad luck: it is a sign of the times.

“While developed countries continue to hesitate in providing much needed support to enhance adaptation actions, particularly vulnerable and poorer developing countries like the Philippines continue to bear the brunt of the destructive effects of climate change,” says Shubert Ciencia of Oxfam in the Philippines, a senior member of the Philippine delegation to the UN climate talks.

“Rich countries, who have historical responsibility in causing climate change, must help developing countries who are suffering the most from its adverse impacts to cope and enhance their resilience,” he added.

The question now is whether global leaders in Paris will commit the funds needed to help countries like the Philippines and towns like Salcedo adapt to climate change. Will they take the voices of people like the Rosaldos and Abud – those hardest hit by climate change, but least responsible for it – straight to the heart of the negotiations?

One thing is sure: whatever they decide, it will affect millions of people across the world, whose lives and livelihoods are most at risk in the battle against climate change.

You can return to the main Market News page, or press the Back button on your browser.